Trickle-Down Effect: How Water Filters & Softeners Are Evolving

As municipalities change a chemical that they put in the water supply, water-filter manufacturers have responded by changing the formulations of their filters. Meanwhile, you’ll notice new hybrid water softeners that also filter water, and salt-free softeners just might be next.

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Chris McElcheran/Masterfile

There’s no escaping it: More contaminants are in municipal water than ever before, which is one reason why consumers in the United States drank 8.75 billion gallons of bottled water in 2010, according to Beverage Marketing, which is a consulting firm. The latest potential problem is chloramine, and manufacturers are starting to switch the formulation of carbon that’s used in their water filters to combat this contaminant.

Another reason why so many consumers continue to get their water from a bottle is portability, but water-filter manufacturers increasingly are creating products that address portability, too. More models of personal water-filtration bottles exist than ever before. Manufacturers tout these water-filtration bottles not only as convenient to use as bottled water is but, unsurprisingly, also as better for the environment, because you aren’t throwing away empty water bottles.

Meanwhile, at least three manufacturers introduced hybrid water softeners that soften and filter water in a single appliance. And two companies say salt-free water softeners are scheduled to arrive in early 2013, which would be a boon for consumers who don’t like the taste of salt-softened water or the chore of maintaining typical water softeners.

SYSTEM SHOCKS. What’s being filtered is at least as important as the method and location of filtration. The latest concern is the increased use of chloramine by municipal water authorities.

Chloramine, which is a combination of chlorine and ammonia, has been used in some U.S. water supplies for decades. However, its use is on the rise because of Environmental Protection Agency regulations that take effect in 2012 and 2013 (depending on the size of the water system) and restrict the presence of trihalomethanes. Trihalomethanes are chemicals that are created when chlorine, which is the standard municipal-water chemical treatment, interacts with organic compounds in water. Trihalomethanes have been linked to cancer.

As a result, EPA estimates that eventually 60 percent of municipal water supplies will contain chloramine. Critics say that, unlike chlorine, which dissipates rapidly as it moves through water systems, chloramine lingers and is linked to respiratory and skin ailments, and is toxic to fish.

“Chloramine bleeds through carbon faster than chlorine,” says Andrew Warnes, who is a former director of Water Quality Association (WQA). Warnes also worked on compliance issues for PRF, which is a GE/Pentair water-purification joint venture. When a municipality changes over to chloramine, manufacturers will need to change their carbon formulation, he says.

“It does take a special type of carbon to be effective in treating chloramine,” confirms Rick Andrew, who is the general manager of the drinking-water-treatment unit for standards-verifying organization NSF International. “One of the trends that we’ve seen is that manufacturers are starting to target chloramine.”

The move to filter this chemical is almost universal in restaurant soft-drink dispensers, he says, but the move remains limited for consumer products, although it’s increasing. At least 12 water filters have been certified for filtering out chloramine, but that still is a minority, he says.

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Brita and PUR, for instance, acknowledge that although chloramine use is on the rise, they have no plans to change their filter formulations. Pentair, which makes the Everpure and Omni brands of water-filtration products, has had specific anti-chloramine filters for about 5 years, says Phil Rolchigo of Pentair, and Aquasana changed its formulation in November 2011 to better address chloramine in its whole-house and showerhead models (and increased the prices of those by 10 percent to 15 percent). Todd Bartee, who is chief executive officer at Aquasana, says a reformulation of its under-sink and countertop models should be certified by the end of 2012. He doesn’t anticipate any price increase as a result.

MURKY MEDS. How to address the presence of chloramine seems clear-cut, but the status of something that we told you about 3 years ago—pharmaceuticals that are in municipal water supplies—unfortunately remains murky. What’s worse, no consensus exists on what threshold of pharmaceuticals in your water constitutes a threat to your health. The reason is that nobody knows.

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